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Life, Death, and Law in Mississippi

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

The morning after this month's relatively quiet (for most of us) Election Day, story after story arrived celebrating a pro-life defeat.

"Mississippi Wins for Women!" The Daily Beast exclaimed. "Birth Control Remains Legal: Mississippi Voters Reject Draconian 'Personhood' Initiative," the National Organization for Women declared. "Our victory in Mississippi has already sent a strong message to extremists who will stop at nothing to outlaw abortion," the American Civil Liberties Union explained.

Mississippi's personhood amendment, seeking to amend the state constitution's legal definition of a "person" to "include every human being from the moment of fertilization," lost at the ballot box. It's the most peculiar of pro-choice celebrations, though, when you consider that pro-life voters played an integral role in its defeat.

It was, in fact, a defeat welcomed by many reliable pro-life activists around the country, concerned, among other things, that it would invite a Supreme Court double-down on Roe v. Wade almost 40 years after the landmark decision that created a right to privacy and codified a cultural revolution.

The personhood campaign is no unanimous pro-life strategy. But the framing of it as such by its opponents certainly was.

On one side, as Leonard J. Nelson III, a law professor and author of "Diagnosis Critical: The Urgent Threats Confronting Catholic Health Care," explains, "It was promoted by Southern Baptists in Mississippi and other evangelicals. But the Catholic bishop in Jackson refused to back it," as did a host of other religious leaders. "It was an oversimplified and sweeping approach to an issue that is more complicated than that for even many pro-life voters."

In other words, it's much more complex than the black-and-white portrayal of "pro-choice wins and pro-life loses!" In fact, it wouldn't be strange to call the initiative's defeat a pro-life victory. But even that wouldn't do full justice to the issue. Our political culture is such that deep discussions don't always happen, and sometimes aren't even welcome. If we did dig a bit deeper into the mysteries of human life, we might realize that we have a lot of middle ground to work on, to save lives and improve lives, to give hope and aid to those who need it.

As supporters of the initiative were accused yet again of waging a war on contraception, it could be argued that the real force intent on control in such matters actually consists of the liberal sisterhood with megaphones, and the current presidential administration. Wielding under-the-radar regulatory directives, the pro-choice brigade can be quite productive. Take, for instance, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, suing on behalf of Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina because of recent government regulations that would force the religious educational institution to cover contraceptives, sterilization and forms of abortion in its employee health-insurance plans.

Beyond political and legal strategy, Christopher Tollefsen, co-author of "Embryo" observes: "This amendment was about whether every human being, including the youngest, deserved full moral and legal protection, a condition that could be called 'personhood.' If it moves debate in that direction, I think it was valuable."

So what exactly is a person, anyway? We have answers, whether we always acknowledge them or not. Scientifically. Biologically. Emotionally. A veil was lifted on an infamously unconstructive debate when sonograms became commonplace in the lives of pregnant women. It's why activists work to help crisis-pregnancy centers raise money for more such windows into the womb. It's why having conversations about who and what we value must be had out in the open, with a little less demonization and more debate about related choices we make, from the most intimate to the financial and yes, political.

I agree with those who say women won a victory in Mississippi. Because, somewhere, beyond misleading victory gongs, there's a little more honesty about humans and human rights. A little victory in defeat.

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